Summary: Philip’s story: persecution to opportunities for evangelism to building bridges to baptism and the Holy Spirit.
Danger and Opportunity: Experiencing Biblical Community
Do any of you read Chinese? I wonder if you can read the characters on the screen behind me and translate them for us. (Chinese word for crisis; two distinct characters, put together these = “crisis”) What is significant about this? One of those Chinese characters, on its own, is the word “danger.” That makes sense; in a crisis there is some type of danger. The second character is the fascinating one: on its own, that second character is the word “opportunity.” In a time of crisis, there is often great danger, but there is more, as we learn from this Chinese wisdom: there is often great opportunity. I think that is very insightful; and it is certainly true of our Scripture passage this morning – Acts 8:1-15.
As you are looking that passage up in your Bibles, let me give you a brief review of the events leading up to chapter 8; without which it might not make much sense. The early church in Acts experienced rapid growth as God did amazing things, and that caused some problems. In chapter 6 we learn of some tension and possibly bias between two groups of Jews, and we saw how the apostles maintained their focus on preaching and teaching and selected seven other men to use their gifts and take care of some of these administrative things. One of those was Stephen, who is killed in chapter 7 for his belief in Jesus. A second one is Philip, who we read more about today. As I read the passage you will see how it was definitely a time of great danger for those who claimed to follow Jesus. Read Acts 8:1-25.
Danger from Persecution: vs. 1-3
Verses 1-3 record the immediate after effects of the stoning of Stephen – a great persecution broke out against the Christians in Jerusalem, led by Saul. It is a frightening picture – I don’t even want to try to imagine living in fear of a crash on the door and a hostile appearance of someone whose sole purpose at that moment is to capture and throw in jail anyone who believes in Jesus. Thankfully, that is beyond my experience.
Yet it is not beyond the experience of many Christians in our world today. The website for the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (idop.ca) reports, “in Nepal, Christians trying to share the gospel with neighbouring villages have been jailed because they were mistaken for terrorists fighting in Nepal’s brutal civil war. In Iran, Christians who share the gospel with Muslims continue to face torture and death for their faith. Right now around the world over 200 million are suffering for their faith.” I have two reactions to statistics like that – relief and thankfulness to God that I am not one of them, and despair as I feel helpless to do anything about it. The second reaction is not true. The one request of the persecuted church in our world, today, meeting maybe at this exact time in a secret location for fear of persecution, is that we pray for them. That is what they ask: “pray for us.” On Nov. 16, the official IDOP, we will dedicate our prayer time in the service to honor that request, but why wait till then – why not do it right now? (pause and pray generally for the persecuted church).
Opportunity: vs. 4
So we see in the first three verses that there was certainly danger. But there was also opportunity in the midst of this crisis, and we see that in verse 4. With the crisis of having to get out of Jerusalem came the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus with a whole new bunch of people outside of Jerusalem, which verse 4 tells us they did! Some, like Philip, did that in the way we sort of envision – going to a town and “preaching” and attracting a crowd and demonstrating the power of God miraculously. But I think many others shared the good news just by being honest about their life. Picture it: a new family arrives in town, people are going to ask “where are you from? What brought you here?”, and the honest answer in this situation leads to a conversation about Jesus and about faith. That still applies: if we are honest about our lives with the people we know who are not Christians, that honesty will lead to conversations about Jesus. For example, tomorrow morning you might go back to work or school and be asked, “How was your weekend?”; or “What did you do with your extra hour?” Some of us answer those questions by mentioning everything we did in the weekend except going to church, or masking the facts: “Sunday night we had dinner with some friends…” Those questions, and others like them, might, if we are a little more honest, lead naturally into conversations about Jesus and about faith. Try it! See what God does – see what opportunities He brings!!